Why the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots need closure.
A stone’s throw from French cafes and posh restaurants at Delhi’s Bikaner House, situated at a corner of the India Gate hexagon, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) operated from a small room at the building’s annex. The founder secretary of R&AW, R N Kao, was tasked by Indira Gandhi to run his operations from the room number 7 for a special job.
One of the main assignments of Kao’s team was to analyse and talk with the newly growing threat in the northern state of Punjab – The Khalistan movement. But what did R&AW have to do with it? After all, the spy organization wasn’t meant for internal intelligence. Khalistan movement was, meanwhile, growing rapidly among various sections of the Sikh population in Punjab, which the state police and the IB could handle well.
However, it was a bigger game which had its brains, money sources and tentacles in faraway lands which included USA, England and Canada. Kao got in touch with his protégé B Raman to assist him to make sure the movement didn’t get completely out of hand.
In a small village of Punjab’s Moga district, Jarnail Singh Brar was born in a Jat family in 1947 – the year India got Independence and Pakistan was born. He would later come to be known as Jarnail Singh Bhrindanwale, a godman for the Sikh community and its dream of Khalistan. Neither he nor his fellow villagers knew that, in the years to come, he would be running the show in Punjab and finally be killed for a cause for which many Sikhs around the world looked up to him. But was it the real cause or a political rise which turned out to be a Frankenstein monster?
While operating from the room number 7 at Bikaner House, Kao and his team were trying to accommodate and initiate a dialogue with the pro-Khalistan activists based overseas while also trying to engage the leaders based out of Canada, UK and USA to negotiate with Bhrindanwale who, by then, was brandishing guns and swords and had turned Punjab into a semi-autonomous region with its own parallel governance and kangaroo courts.
By 1977, Bhrindanwale had become the head of Dam Dami Taksal as ’Sant’ (Saint). He was deeply religious and motivated by the orthodox Sikh teachings and could motivate others. Punjab was then dominated by the Akalis where G S Tohra, H S Longwal and Prakash Singh Badal (who later formed SAD) were the heavyweights.
At the Centre, Giani Zail Singh, who went on to become the President of India, was the Home Minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Singh had himself risen from the gurdwaras. Zail Singh propped up Bhrindanwale in the state politics to break the Akali domination. People in Punjab abhorred Congress politics led by Mrs Gandhi. So, to circumvent that, Zail Singh’s strategy was to build a proxy force.
Before the Beginning
Much before Bhrindenwale burst on the scene, Sikh community in the UK in the 50s and the 60s, complained about lands not being granted to them for religious purposes. The then Indian High Commissioner to the UK, instead of taking up their cause, told them to talk to the local authorities themselves.
As India and Pakistan became two different countries after the Partition, the Sikh holy shrines like Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib were in Pakistan while Golden Temple, Anandpur Sahib and many other religious sites were in India.
Dr Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a finance minister in the Akali Dal cabinet, went to London and joined the diaspora to demand a Sikh home rule in India andPakistan. By then the Pakistan High Commission and M16 were monitoring the diaspora which comprised migrants from both India and Pakistan who had settled in the UK.
A former cop from Punjab, Ganga Singh Dhillon, would become an ideologue of the Khalistan movement in the latter part of his life and chairman of Sri Nankana Sahib Foundation. Dhillon went to the US and settled there and got married to a Sikh lady of Kenyan origin who was friends with Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s wife. This is how the Dhillon family came close to the dictator. Once in an interview to an Indian magazine on his visit to Chandigarh, Dhillon denied being an agent of CIA and Zia. In anger, he stated: “I don’t need Zia or the CIA to tell me to do what I must do…” Later his entry into India was barred. He passed away in the US in 2014.
Meanwhile, Chauhan’s efforts led to the creation of groups like Babbar Khalsa, International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) and Dal Khalsa, which slowly spread among sections of the Sikh diaspora in Europe, USA and Canada.
Just after the recovery of huge arms from the premises of the Golden Temple in 1984, S Venkat Narayan interviewed President Zia ul Haq over phone for India Today. Some revealing facts were discussed among which Zia denied any insolvent in Khalistan movement and smuggling of arms. When asked about Dhillon, Zia said that he (Dhillon) had met him as a Sikh pilgrim and not as a leader.
When asked specifically about arms smuggling to Punjab, Zia said: “It may be possible because these days gun-running between Pakistan and India is as common as anywhere in the world.” He added: “This problem is fairly serious. Smuggling does take place across the borders. This has been discussed at most of the bilateral meetings. According to an agreement, the two border security forces are honour-bound and duty-bound to check smuggling. They are allowed to keep contact with each other in order to help in providing necessary information and to ensure that smuggling is checked in time and, if detected, the individuals are apprehended. There is a good coordination between the two forces and this point has been discussed at the diplomatic level practically in all the meetings. We have been continuously trying to see that such practices of smuggling across the two borders are, at least, minimised, if not totally checked.”
Bhrindanwale’s men unlashed a spree of assassinations in 1981. Anyone who stood up against the cause of Khalistan was killed. Bhrindanwale was arrested on charges of murder, accused of getting Hind Samachar’s Jagat Narain assassinated.
While Kao was trying to negotiate with the hardliners back in North America and UK, an Indian Airlines plane IC423 from Delhi to Amritsar was hijacked by the Dal Khalsa members who demanded release of Bhrindanwale in Lahore. Natwar Singh, the then Indian Ambassador to Pakistan, intervened and spoke to President Zia for the release of the passengers. Pakistan took a prompt action using the SSG commandos to storm the plane, release the passengers and neutralise the hijackers.
The support and strength of Bhrindanwale was increasing and Punjab was increasingly becoming a potboiler of murders and kidnappings. No one could talk against the Khalsa, or else, they were killed in broad daylight. Ammunition and sympathy from the USA and Europe was pouring in and slowly Bhrindanwale took over the Akal Takth inside the premises of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Indian Army deserters and discontented officers joined the Khalistani ranks, prominent among them was Major General Shahbeg Singh. An Indian Army veteran who in 1971 took care of the Pakistani POWs, Major General Singh was now preparing Sikhs to create a fortress against the Indian Army that would be the epicentre of the fight on the fateful days of Operation Blue Star.
Operation Blue Star left a deep scar on the Sikh community which till date rankles many. Jarnail Singh Bhrindanwale was killed in the shelling as military grade equipment was used to blow the Akal Takth. The Sikhs took it as an assault on their religion. In 1966, Mrs Gandhi had used similar military measures in Mizoram where air force was used to bomb the Mizo National Army.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was being guarded by Sikh bodyguards, despite having been advised against it in the wake of Operation Blue star. On 31 October, she fell to the bullets of her Sikh bodyguards as she was stepping out of her Safdarjung Road residence. Satwant Singh and Beant Singh used 0.39 bore revolver and sterling submachine gun or stengun to assassinate her at 9:20 in the morning to avenge the attack on one of the holiest Sikh sites.
What followed was one of the most dastardly pogroms in the post-47 history of India. An estimated 8,000 Sikhs were killed across India–more than 2,000 in Delhi alone. Rajiv Gandhi seemed to be justifying the massacre when he said: “When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.”
Though 38 years have gone by, judgments have been delayed and the perpetrators are still roaming free. Accused politicians like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler are leading a free life. Many children who lost their fathers are now in their thirties and forties. Their children still hear stories of spine-chilling violence.
Many years later when I interviewed the families of the victims who, somehow, managed to survive, they narrated heart-rending accounts of the massacre and the agony of justice still eluding them.
Bhagi Kaur, who migrated from Tilak Vihar to Trilokpuri, had her husband and seven relatives, including her brothers-in-law and their sons, killed on the evening of November 1, 1984. She lives on a pension of around Rs 10,000 which is not enough to run her household and take care of five people.
“To everyone else, the riots took place so many years ago, but for me, it feels like it all happened yesterday. Almost my entire family was wiped out in front of my eyes and even after so many years, we haven’t been delivered any justice. The culprits are still roaming free. We are still fighting the consequences of what had happened. My life is almost over now, but my kids are facing the hardships they don’t deserve. The only hope I have is that, maybe, my grandchildren will one day see happiness,” she says.
Lakshmi Kaur’s husband and five brothers, among other relatives, were brutally killed. “They put a tyre dipped in kerosene around my husband’s neck and set it afire. A middle-aged man from the mob came back at night and tried to touch me inappropriately. When I resisted, he went out and called his entire group. They searched my house and killed all the eight men hiding inside,” she recalls.
Her infant son was thrown into the fire. The mob thought her son was dead but he somehow survived. He has been paraplegic since then. These people living in the ghettoized areas of the national capital ever knew what Khalistan was. Neither were they involved in any activities related to it. To them, the assault on the Golden Temple and the Akal Takth was a sorrowful event. They knew nothing beyond that.
Many members of the Sikh community in India visited the final resting place of the founder of Sikhism, Baba Guru Nanak, at Kartarpur in Pakistan for the first time since Partition, after the announcement of the Kartarpur corridor initiative between the two countries. The inauguration of the project on November 28 in 2018 also gave a new lease of hope to diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan.
The proposed corridor is 4 km long on the Indian territory from Gurdaspur to Pathankot and 3 km onward to Kartarpur in Pakistan’s Narowal district, including a stretch over the river Ravi.
Baba Nanak spent his last 18 years of life preaching and farming from Kartarpur village. The gurdwara that came up here following his death in 1539 was destroyed by floods in the subsequent years. It was in the 1920s that the erstwhile maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, the grandfather of Captain Amarinder Singh, reconstructed the Kartarpur gurudwara.
In 1999, the then prime ministers of the two countries, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif, briefly discussed opening up a corridor to Kartarpur but no progress was made until another Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, spoke to Pakistan’s military President Pervez Musharraf, under whom the building underwent a renovation. However, Kartarpur Sahib remained inaccessible to the Indian pilgrims.
Finally, in August 2018, during the swearing in ceremony of Imran Khan, politician and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu and Pakistan’s Chief-of-Army Staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa, spoke about the proposed corridor. Imran Khan also told an Indian journalist at a press conference that “…the only way forward is peace.”
At the inauguration of the corridor, Khalistan supporter Gopal Singh Chawla was present at the podium which gave India an uneasy feeling. Present at the inaugural function were a large number of students from Khalsa schools all over Pakistan including KPK, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Balochistan, Mirpur and Abbotabad. There were many other Khalistan supporters present but there was no provocation and when I talked to them, I found they had neither forgotten Operation Blue Star nor the subsequent violence unleashed upon the community.
While the community has moved on from the extreme violent days of Khalistan and Bhindranwale, the wounds of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots continue to fester and justice continues to be elusive.